What Is The Difference Between Arthritis and Bursitis?

Arthritis and bursitis may feel the same since they both cause pain and discomfort in joints, but the causes of these two conditions are different. Arthritis refers to a group of chronic diseases, with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis being the most common. It results from the normal wear-and-tear of the cartilage during the aging process and causes permanent damage. On the other hand, bursitis is a temporary condition caused by overuse, injury, or infection.

Man gripping stairwell handle and hip

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What Is Bursitis?

Bursitis is the inflammation of fluid-filled sacs called bursae. Bursae act as cushions to the bones, tendons, and muscles around the joints that act to reduce friction, rubbing, and inflammation. They can become inflamed from overuse or poor posture. Inflammation can also be the side effect of a medication or condition.

A person's risk for bursitis increases as they age, and bursitis is more common in people with jobs that involve repetitive motions and putting pressure on certain joints such as sports, manual labor, and music. Spending time in positions that put pressure on parts of your body, such as kneeling, can also increase the risk of bursitis. Occasionally, a sudden injury or infection can cause bursitis. Some medical conditions like arthritis, gout, diabetes, and thyroid disease are also a risk factor for bursitis.

Activities that can lead to bursitis include:

  • Carpentry
  • Gardening and raking
  • Painting
  • Poor posture or a poorly positioned joint or bone due to different leg lengths, bone spurs, or arthritis in a joint
  • Scrubbing
  • Shoveling
  • Sports like tennis, golf, and baseball

Locations

Bursitis can take place in any of the 150 bursae in the body, but there are a few locations that are most commonly affected by this condition, including:

  • Shoulders (subacromial bursitis)
  • Hips (iliopectineal or trochanteric bursitis)
  • Elbows (olecranon bursitis, sometimes called miner’s or barfly’s elbow)
  • Feet (name varies depending on location, commonly in the big toe, heel or ball of the foot)
  • Knees (prepatellar bursitis or housemaid’s knee)
  • Buttocks (ischial bursitis or weaver’s bottom)

Symptoms

Bursitis can cause pain and discomfort in the affected joint, and oftentimes causes a stabbing pain when touching the area or during movements.

Other symptoms include:

  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling
  • Redness, warmth, fever, and chills, if there is an infection

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis encompasses more than 100 diseases with the chief symptom of joint pain. It typically causes inflammation in more than one joint in the body, resulting in swelling, stiffness, and pain that can worsen with age. Additional symptoms that are common across arthritic diseases include limited range of motion, stiffness, and swelling.

Each type of arthritis may have a different cause, which can include wear-and-tear like osteoarthritis, infections, and underlying diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This form of arthritis is an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, resulting in inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) mainly attacks the joints, usually many at once. It commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. The lining of the joint with RA becomes inflamed, causing damage to joint tissue, which can cause long-lasting or chronic pain, unsteadiness, and deformity.

RA symptoms include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, fatigue, and low-grade fever. RA can also affect other tissues throughout the body and cause problems in organs such as the lungs, heart, and eyes.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis, most often seen in adults over 65 years of age. Because of its association with age, some people also call it degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” arthritis. It occurs most frequently in the hands, hips, and knees.

With OA, the cartilage within a joint begins to break down and the underlying bone begins to change. OA can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. In some cases, it causes reduced function and disability.

How Arthritis and Bursitis are Similar

Arthritis and bursitis are similar in various ways. Bursitis and arthritis have overlapping symptoms and locations, making the two difficult to differentiate.

Symptoms

Both of these conditions can cause the following symptoms:

  • Pain and aching in joints
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Pain when touching the area

Locations

These two conditions also affect similar locations, including:

  • Shoulders
  • Knees
  • Wrists
  • Hips

They also both have the potential to affect other areas.

How Arthritis and Bursitis are Different

The key difference between the two conditions is the exact location of the inflammation. In arthritis, it is in the joint, whereas bursitis is in the bursae. Arthritis and bursitis are also different in pathology, onset, and how long they last.

Locations

While it is true that arthritis and bursitis can affect the same joints, when it comes down to the most common joints affected, there is some difference. Arthritis is commonly in knees, hips, and small joints, whereas bursitis is most commonly found in shoulders, hips, elbows, and knees.

Onset

Bursitis can come on suddenly and is an acute condition. On the other hand, arthritis can come on gradually and is a progressive disease.

Length of Condition

The damage done by arthritis is often permanent, while bursitis is a short-term irritation. It doesn’t create long-lasting damage unless you continue to stress the area.

How Arthritis and Bursitis are Diagnosed

An exam is usually enough to diagnose bursitis, but if you have another bursitis flare-up or signs of an infection, your provider may recommend:

  • X-rays to rule out other conditions
  • Ultrasound or MRI to detect swollen bursae
  • A blood test to look for infection
  • A sample of fluid from the bursa, if infected

To diagnose arthritis, a doctor will take a medical history and do a physical exam to find the causes of pain and how the pain is affecting the patient’s ability to function. The patient may have x-rays or other imaging procedures such as a CT scan or MRI to see how much joint damage there is.

A Word From Verywell

In order to get these conditions, arthritis or bursitis, under control, it is best to get medical attention sooner than later. Your doctor will be familiar with the differences in presentation and able to diagnose without additional testing. Diagnosis and treatment will make for a quick recovery in bursitis and a slower progression of arthritis.

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Article Sources
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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis (OA). Updated July 27, 2020.